On a chilly day in February, American Red Cross volunteer Eli Russ responded to three fires in one day—even though he was on vacation. This is the kind of dedication Russ has to the Red Cross mission and why the Red Cross is celebrating all its volunteers this week as a part of National Volunteer Week.
Last month, Red Cross President Gail McGovern also honored Russ by presenting him with the Navin Narayan Excellence in Youth Leadership Award in a ceremony at national headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“That meant the world to me,” Russ said. The award is given annually to a Red Cross youth volunteer who demonstrates exemplary leadership skills and service to the organization. It honors the life of Navin Narayan, who began volunteering with the Red Cross at age 14 and died of cancer in 2000 at age 23.
Russ began working with the Red Cross Metro New York North Chapter three years ago after hearing a local board member talk about the Red Cross mission. He then discovered that his own school, Mamaroneck High School in Westchester County, had a Red Cross youth club. Three months later, Eli was serving as president of the club.
“I want to help people,” Russ said. Many times when people see him on the scene of a disaster, he gets the typical “oh-you’re-so-young” response. But Russ takes it in stride and tells them: “I am young, but I’ve done this before, and we’ll still take care of you the same way as anyone else.”
Today, Russ continues to lead his school’s Red Cross Youth Club, which has grown from two members to over 30. Russ also serves as a member of the Metro New York North Disaster Action Team and is often called to assist victims of local disasters, such as house fires or hurricanes. During Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Russ helped run shelters at his high school for those displaced by the storm—work which felt particularly personal and rewarding for him. “These are literally our neighbors, and often times peers at school,” he said.
Like Navin Narayan, Russ serves on the American Red Cross National Youth Council as well.
“I’ve never met a youth member as dedicated and passionate as Eli,” said Andrew Sindell, the volunteer resources and youth services manager for the Metro New York North chapter. Out of 800 volunteers in his chapter, Sindell said about 200 are youths.
Jim Starr, vice president of volunteer engagement for national headquarters, is focusing on recruiting volunteers of all stripes and especially those under 18. “We want to be the premier organization where young people come to give back to the community,” he said. He recommends all interested youth connect with their local Red Cross chapter on how they can get involved.